Dr Susan Shannon: Factors in Non-Registration of Women as Architects

It may be surprising to most in the Australian architectural profession or the educators of the almost 1000 Australian architecture graduates each year that, despite female students forming at least 40% of graduating B Architecture (now M Architecture) classes since 1999, women in 2012 comprise just 21% of registered architects in Australia.

My research aims to unpack the South Australian statistics behind these headline figures, and to understand the factors in non-registration of women as architects, as a proof-of-concept study prior to tacking this research at a national level for all 18 Schools of Architecture and all eight registration jurisdictions.

From 1999-2012  there were 1162 B Architecture and M Architecture graduates from the two B Arch and M Arch credentialing institutions in SA – the University of Adelaide (606) and Uni SA (556). Of these graduates, 427 or 37% were women, with 232 (54%) of the women graduating from the University of Adelaide. Overall, these totals sit just below the Australian average of 40% of the graduating classes for that period being women.

Registration as an architect (under the Architectural Practice Act 2009) for B Arch and M Arch graduates is the next logical continuing professional education step after graduation. It is attained in a 3 part nationally managed Architectural Practice Examination process focusing upon the legal and professional duties of an architect. Part 1 is the acceptance of 3000 hours of mandated competences under the supervision of a registered architect; Part 2 successful completion of a standardised written examination and Part 3 a structured interview. Upon notification of successful completion of the APE, graduates may register as an architect, allows them to call themselves architects, to  be a sole practitioner if desired, and to administer a contract as an architect. Registering anywhere is Australia is recognised as registration by all states and territories, as all eight states and territories have their own registration legislation and jurisdictions.

What are the figures for registration in South Australia, remembering that graduates from any accredited school in Australia may sit for registration in SA? From 1999-2102 of 330 registrants in SA, 95 were women (29%).

But what of the outcomes for those women who graduated from the two South Australian Universities, and sought registration in any jurisdiction? Utilising the Australian Architects’ roll, and the eight State and Territory jurisdictional rolls, and heavily relying upon social media, my Adelaide Research Summer Scholar 2012-2013 Yishu Zeng and I tracked the registration status for every female South Australian graduate 1999-2012. We found that 97 women (from a total of 427female graduates) have registered (22.7%) – 55 from the University of Adelaide and 42 from Uni SA. But what of the other 77%? Were they not interested in registration after 5 years minimum of University study? A qualitative study was undertaken to interview female graduates who have, and have not registered, to understand factors in their decision either to register, or not to register. Interviews were also conducted with principals of architectural firms where graduates tended to register, to discover what their pro-registration practices were.

From all three groups interviewed the conclusion was the same—that practice culture and leadership creates a pro-registration environment, and from that flow all the other processes which enable and support registration, even for reluctant candidates. Interviewees reported that practice size was a major factor in non-registration, with large practices supporting specialised graduate staff who often did not gain experience across the wide range of competences. Attaining the competences was a critical factor in readiness for the next step – the Architectural Practice Exams. Gender was an issue—women felt that in the male-dominated construction industry, where they have to prove themselves every day, the fear of failure when undertaking the Architectural Practice Exams for registration, and with that the loss of face, and of confidence, and of authority in the office and on site, was a major factor in not putting oneself up as a candidate for registration, and the secrecy surrounding their candidacy if they did apply to register. The biological clock, ticks loudly for women who have completed a long university course with a minimum of two year post-graduation practice accruing the 3000 APE Log Book hours in the mandatory competences to be a candidate for registration. The average length of time to registration from graduation was five years in the interviewed group, and up to 33 years. Women reported that it was a choice between ‘nappies or understanding specifications’ and that they were inclined to either rush registration through earlier to have it accomplished before starting a family, acknowledging the difficulty of finding the time to study for registration with little children, or delay registration until there was more time when their children were older. Part-time work was a desired practice employment model for many interviewed women, but the project-based nature of architectural work compared with the sessional nature of other professional employment (medicine was frequently cited) meant that the architectural practices for whom they worked were not always willing or able to accommodate requests for part-time employment. No women interviewees were employed part-time when their registration process was undertaken. Conversely, several women interviewees employed part-time were not registered.

Where to from here with this research? I have applied, together with Dr Katharine Bartsch, who  has studied the history of the first female architecture graduates and registrants in South Australia for an ARC Discovery Grant to replicate this study nationally. It can be argued from a national productivity perspective that, in 2013, a continuation of an educational and registration process whereby only about a fifth of female graduates registering must be further examined.

On the basis of these national data and qualitative inputs, detailed explanations of the lower female registration rates will be derived and a range of possible policy responses will be canvassed.

This research is nationally important for a number of reasons including:

  1. Australia’s scarce education resources need to be used efficiently, and understanding why women who graduate from architecture do not go on to become registered architects is an important input into optimising the allocation of educational resources;
  2. Gender equality is an important social priority and if it can be argued that the architectural profession is underperforming in this area any policy response needs to be underpinned by appropriate data and analysis;
  3. The phenomenon of the aging workforce in Australia will have significant impacts on the availability of skills across all professions; women are an important source of skilled labour that simply cannot be ignored in this context;
  4. Australia faces significant opportunities in the export of skills to our rapidly growing Asian trading partners who are undertaking city building on an unprecedented scale; realising these opportunities will require an assured supply of  appropriate skills in Australia including architects;
  5. Efforts to decarbonise the Australian economy will also require significant input from architects and, again, the supply of these skills will be critical in realising national objectives;
  6. Issues of skill supply also interact with other policy areas such as migration policy: for example, architects are currently on the DIMIA Migration Skills Occupation List at a time when Australia is graduating almost 1000 new architecture graduates each year—many of whom do not manage to accumulate the graduate experience to register.

Having successfully conducting the local study, it is now possible to understand some of the factors militating against registration, and to seek to influence action aimed at encouraging registration at all levels, including in the two Universities. This may include:

  1. Providing explicit information in professional practice courses about the route to registration.
  2. Encouraging students to commence APE Log Books during part-time and internship roles in firms; and Schools to accept that work in lieu of elective studies towards M. Arch. Degrees;
  3. Extend graduates’ expectations for interstate and overseas graduate employment through internships, study abroad, overseas and interstate studios;
  4. Provide ‘Women in Architecture’ networking and mentoring seminars to enable women students to see the path ahead;
  5. Engage women academic and sessional staff in equal number to women students’ ratio.


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